Tohoku: take a slide on Japan’s wilder side
Tohoku occupies around 30% of Honshu, the entire northern section of Japan’s largest island. As you head north the general rule is fewer people, more wilderness and nature. For snow lovers it means less competition for great runs, and plenty of places where international guests are a very small portion of the clientele. Local history, culture and cuisine add plenty to the mix. So if you want to try something different on your next (or your first!) snow holiday in Japan try these.
Aizu region, samurai snow
Home to beautiful lakes and forest covered mountains the Aizu region is less than 2 hours from Tokyo via Shinkansen and local trains or buses, or 3.5 – 4 hours’ drive, so it has become a favourite weekend escape for locals. They love the clean air, views, onsen, cuisine, sake and the history – especially the Buddhist and samurai era sights which abound here.
My generation grew up watching Shintaro the Samurai on black and white TV in the 1960s, which made their cool outfits and sideways running feats even more spectacular. The highlight was their star knives, which we used to imitate by making our own out of tin can lids – occupational health and safety was a novel concept back then. These days you can get your little boys or girls a safer alternative at Tsuraga Castle (Tsurugajo), the souvenir soft stuffed squeaky samurai swords. This is a present guaranteed to get any device-obsessed little kid up and active; our grandsons sure loved theirs to death, though mum was less impressed.
Tsurugajo at Aizuwakamatsu City was a key site in the historic era on which the Last Samurai movie was loosely based. The main structure is a restoration, but the walls and moat are original and it’s a must see in any season as it varies from snow covered to cherry blossoms to autumn colours.
Also in Aizuwakamatsu, Sazaedo Buddhist temple with its unique winding wooden staircase is a fascinating example of the 1200 year history of Buddhism in the area.
The city is only 45 minutes or so drive from great skiing, so you can base yourself here or plan to spend the weekend here, when the main resorts like Alts Bandai and Grandeco get busier, and stay in excellent quality and value ski-in/ski-out resort accommodation during the week, when the resorts are often empty. Or try Higashiyama Onsen Village just outside Aizuwakamatsu. The onsen were discovered 1300 years ago, and staying in a traditional ryokan here is a fantastic experience. We stayed at Ashina, a luxury ryokan made from a rebuilt traditional farmhouse. The kaiseki (multi course menu) featured the local specialty dengaku – skewered grilled tofu slow cooked over a charcoal pit fire in front of you.
Mt Bandai is a famous volcanic peak that dominates the skyline and hosts 6 varied resorts running around its middle slopes. Alts Bandai is the largest and best of these, with extensive groomed runs including plenty of easier terrain, excellent snow parks (they host some of Japan’s biggest park events), some powder tree runs, and a free snow-cat into formerly lift-accessed runs. From Alts Bandai you can make a 15 minute hike over the ridge to Nekoma resort, or get a free shuttle bus around the mountain, which takes just over an hour, and ski there on the same lift pass. Nekoma faces north, so you get better powder conditions here including some glorious uncrowded tree runs.
Grandeco is the other must-ski resort out of the 22 in the whole region. It boasts excellent hooded lifts, easy groomed runs, and perfect terrain for less confident powder skiers to get their act together on. Experts can hike above the top lift to access magnificent powder runs through snow ghosts. Stay at the superb Grandeco Resort at the base.
The Aizu region is on a mission to attract international skiers and snowboarders with some incredible deals. Last year they introduced a super cheap lift pass, and that continues for 2017-2018 season. If you are over 24 you pay only JPY 3,500 for a day pass or for 19-24 year olds it’s free! Yes, just show your passport at the ticket window to qualify (you must be a short term visitor is all).
New this year is an accommodation special package too, just AUD 199 per person for up to 5 nights with breakfasts and lift passes! Plus you get return coach transfers from Haneda Airport or Tokyo Station. You have to become an ‘Aizu Ambassador’ to qualify, for which you simply register the free SIM card they provide and download the Aizu Mobile App. Then the more you post the more you get – 1 post = 1GB of data, 1 share = 10MB data, more than 200 likes gets you a complimentary service to use in Aizu such as free drink, free dinner, taxi voucher and more.
The promo is valid from 18 December 2017 to 31 March 2018.
More on Aizu at
Iwate Prefecture, home of ‘Aspirin Powder”
Heading further north up the Tohoku shinkansen line brings you to Iwate Prefecture, home to what the locals call ‘Aspirin Powder’ snow. Their theory is as it crosses the ranges it gets drier than at areas closer to the west coast, and being further north means it’s colder too. In our experiences skiing there over the past 10 years the theory is correct.
There are lots of options, but 3 resorts stand out for international visitors; Geto Kogen, Shizukuishi and Appi. They can be easily combined using a JR East Rail Tohoku pass and the free or cheap resort buses from the shinkansen stations. Hop off at Kitakami for Geto Kogen, or Morioka for Shizukuishi and Appi.
Geto Kogen claims to be Japan’s ‘King of Snow’, often getting more snow than just about anywhere else. Mountain Manager Sadahide Sugawara has another theory to explain that; around Geto the ranges close in, so snowfall sweeping in from the northwest gets concentrated over a smaller area, rather than spread out over numerous ranges. It’s another theory I can personally rate as highly plausible. Back in February I got to ski the area with Sadahide, on a private powder tour before the main gondola opened to the public. We did several laps in waist deep snow as he showed me the existing tree courses and the new ones they are opening up for this season. It was right up there with the best powder skiing I have ever done, anywhere in the world – including out of helicopters at exclusive, and very expensive, heli ski areas in North America. There are some nice cruisy groomed runs at Geto too, but for the serious powder chaser this place is paradise.
Geto Kogen can be enjoyed very cheaply indeed from their funky Geto Camp88 backpacker facility in the main base building. Ski-in/ski-out normally costs a premium anywhere, but here you get a comfortable bunk plus a great indoor/outdoor onsen for JPY 5,900 a night midweek. Alternatively 20 minutes down the road Semi Onsen offers traditional ryokan style, or plenty of good value hotels are available in Kitakami town. Geto runs daily free buses from town to the resort.
Heading north, Morioka is only 17 minutes from Kitakami by shinkansen, then around 45 minutes to Shizukuishi on the Prince Hotels free shuttle bus if staying there, or 50 minutes to Appi on regular buses.
Shizukuishi is single hotel Prince resort offering very uncrowded runs and exceptional value, especially for families as kids to 12 years ski free. Most of the terrain is easy cruising, but there are nice powder runs too, especially in formerly lift-accessed areas that are now left untouched. The resort had a moment of fame hosting the 1993 FIS World Alpine Ski Championships and then lapsed into obscurity. Trust me, obscurity is good if you want untracked powder runs.
Appi is a larger resort, already well established with the Australian market, especially families. Appi have made ongoing efforts to not just attract Aussie guests but keep them coming back by constantly adding and improving their offering. That runs across the board from improvements on the mountain, like opening up tree courses and back-country ski tours and cat-skiing, to trips to the nearby town for shopping, dining and nightlife experiences.
Their newest addition is converting former hotel accommodation to self-contained apartments as many of us prefer that. While you wouldn’t want to spend too long at any of the Iwate areas, doing 3 or 4 nights at each works perfectly with train and bus times and their proximity, so you don’t have to miss any ski days.
Aomori, deep powder followed by a deep soak in a 300 year old wooden onsen
Right at the top of Honshu, yet still only 3.15 hours from Tokyo by shinkansen, Aomori Prefecture offers some incredible skiing – either family style cruisy or deep powder wild – and remains relatively undiscovered. With the Sea of Japan to one side and the Pacific Ocean to the other, superb seafood is guaranteed too.
Much as I love powder skiing the thing I look forward to most coming back here is the amazing 300 year old Sukayu Onsen near Hakkoda. It’s old school mixed bathing, but ladies can get a pop-over “apron” for JPY 1,000 (or stay behind their screened off area) and the locals aren’t fussed so you share the traditional family style. The cedar wood used in the main bath must be tough to withstand the mineral laden waters that help you recover fast from even the most strenuous day.
Hakkoda is not for the faint-hearted or the unfit, this is a powder heaven that gets slammed with snow. There is no machine grooming at all off the single ropeway, just two main poled out courses that you can go by yourselves on (if equipped and experienced) and more options where a local guide is essential. These can be booked at the base. You can stay right there at the budget Sanso Lodge, whose owner Chu Hei is a great guide, or the moderate Hakkoda Resort Hotel, or ryokan style at Sukayu Onsen, or more upmarket at the very traditional Hotel Jogakura, or 5 star Hakkoda Hotel which are along the road running round the mountain and provide free shuttle services to the Hakkoda base.
Other than the ropeway, there is just a short double chairlift at the base with a couple of groomed runs, so this is obviously an area for the keen powder fiend, although not so keen partners will love the onsen and the upmarket hotels mentioned above. You could also take a day out to go shopping in Aomori.
For all round skiers and families the best option up here is Aomori Spring Resort, set on the middle slopes of Mt Iwataki with glorious views over the Sea of Japan. The Rockwood Resort Hotel at the base offers ski-in/ski-out comfort, and long empty groomed runs cater for all standards. They are working to make it a centre for park and pipe too, and those facilities are excellent. A little short hiking accesses magnificent old growth birch forest for uncrowded powder skiing. The forests were protected many years ago, and they were certainly the biggest and best spaced birch trees I have been lucky enough to ski anywhere in Japan.
There is not a lot else to do up here, so again a few nights at each works, or add one or both to a multi-area trip using rail passes. From Aomori you can continue on the shinkansen to Hakodate in Hokkaido apart from the Aizu and Iwate areas mentioned above.
*Owain Price has skied over 100 different areas in Japan over the past 15 years as Managing Editor of Snow Action Magazine. For lots more in-depth features see http://snowaction.com.au/category/snow-travel/japan.